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51 Soko to the Islands on the Other Side of the World
Review extracts

P. N. Review, Volume 17, number 4

...Westlake's letters, like Montesquieu's [Lettres Persanes], work through exotic perspectives to focus on Western culture. The four Japanese letter writers – chef, entrepreneur, production-line mechanic, and legendary author-Prince Genji turning on his own tales – address a culture they have richly mis-read, or so we choose to think and ethnocentrically insist. Their letters build up a collage of myth and history, traditional codes and instant cultures, stereotypes and subversions, re-readings and counter-readings. This is the inversion of Edward Said's Orientalism, though 'their' Occidentalism displays our Orientalism too. To take a cue from Westlake's earlier novel, The Utopian, the text as object has, as its sub-text, the narrator's subjectivity...

... Westlake's four novels have common preoccupations. Each novel highlights our society's dominant framework of images – call it a kaleidoscope, call it a code, but watch it call the tune. Each of his novel's seizes exuberantly, inventively on the discourses that we deploy and deploy us. Each of his novels, consequently, amounts to an exploration of the politics of our culture, with forays into the culture of politics. And each hatches and cross-hatches more tales, fabulations and factions than you've had hot narremes.

The Listener, 27 September 1990

... 51 Soko is formidable but delightful: Calvino might have been proud to have written it. Cerebral, experimental and ingenious, it's also playful, imaginative and wise, subtly intoxicating like sake. The correspondents' mockery has a built-in uneasiness at the half-realised fact that Japan is both world leader and world loner. Their observations, critiques and billets doux are in an affable register whose compass allows the ramifications of a deep response to grow in the reader. Like the haiku form, Westlake's novel is all suggestion, artful in construction, exact-cum-inconclusive, acute of timbre, stylishly perceiving that fiction is as much the reader's property as the author's. Meaning is deferred and attenuated, so that the book's elegance comes to coincide with a very Japanese reticence.

'No Japanese dish is endowed with a centre... everything is the ornament of another ornament' observed Barthes. This is one such relativist dish. It may cause dyspepsia in some: its disjunctive form – letters, tables, lists, indices, numerological games, phone calls, equations, computer print-outs, interlocking puzzles and linguistic jokes – may well induce cries of 'Where's the beef?' Those exasperated by the feeling that there is no single thing to grasp here may care to consider Genji's letter to Jenny Agutter: 'the last thing we want is satisfaction, but rather to find the means of sustaining our condition of wanting.'

Esteemed readers of the The Listener, may you acquire this enigmatic masterpiece. Announce a similar Thumbs Up regarding this true samurai, Westlake-san, forestalling the seppuku which otherwise is this reviewer's only honourable course.

London Review of Books, 15 January 1991

...Michael Westlake's 51 Soko – an ingenious, teasing, complex, at times impenetrable, often brilliantly parodic book...

Here they are, then, four representative speciments of Nipponymity, contemplating typical aspects of Britishness and discovering all manner of links and parallels between two island cultures – some of them amusingly absurd, some both amusing and illuminating, in the way that a parable or a poetic metaphor can illuminate. The topics they touch on range from stamp-collecting to romantic fiction, from sunflowers to Sumo wrestling, from tunnels to four truly terrifying things – defined in a letter to Michael Fish as storms, earthquakes, fire and fathers. Their addressees, equally diverse, include personages past and present, real and fictional – for the essence of the book is miscellany and mélange, the shifted reference, the planned hapharzard, the melding of literal and figurative, the brilliant subversion of all notions of category and order....

...51 Soko repeatedly implies the role of chance, change and presupposition – the reader's presupposition – in the creation and recreation of a work of literature. 'Is this a text?' – 'If you think so'; 'Who is the writer?' – 'That depends on the reader.' Postgraduate students of literary theory will love it.

City Life, November 1990

... 51 Soko could be the definitive novel of the '90s.